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Three Misconceptions about Age and L2 Learning Stefka H. Marinova-Todd; D. Bradford Marshall; Catherine E. Snow TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1. (Spring, 2000), pp. 9-34.Stable URL: TESOL Quarterly is currently published by Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL).

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Three Misconceptions About Age and L2 LearningSTEFKA H. MARINOVA-TODD, D. BRADFORD MARSHALL, and CATHERINE E. SNOWHaruard University Cambn'dge, Massachusetts, United States

Age has often been considered a major, if not the primary, factor determining success in learning a second or foreign language. Children are generally considered capable of acquiring a new language rapidly and with little effort, whereas adults are believed to be doomed to failure. Although older learners are indeed less likely than young children to master an L2, a close examination of studies relating age to language acquisition reveals that age differences reflect differences in the situation of learning rather than in capacity to learn. They do not demonstrate any constraint on the possibility that adults can become highly proficient, even nativelike, speakers of L2s. Researchers, in other words, have often committed the same blunders as members of the general public: misinterpretation of the facts relating to speed of acquisition, misattribution of age differences in language abilities to neurobiological factors, and, most notably, a misemphasis on poor adult learners and an underemphasis on adults who master L2s to nativelike levels. By clarifying these misconceptions, we hope this article will lead to a better understanding of L2 learning and, in turn, better approaches to L2 teaching.

he term critical period for language acquisition refers to a period of time when learning a language is relatively easy and typically meets with a high degree of success. Once this period is over, at or before the onset of puberty, the average learner is less likely to achieve nativelike ability in the target language. It is generally accepted among psycholinguists that a critical period for L1 acquisition exists, but controversy arises when the critical period claim is extended to L2 learning. The existence of a critical period for second language acquisition (SLA) would have serious implications for foreign language teachers working with older students, not the least of which would be a need for a complete overhaul of expectations and methods of evaluation. If older students are biologically incapable of mastering another language to aTESOL QUARTERL Y Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring 2000



very high level, then they should not be graded in comparison to native speakers. As expectations are lowered, so too should teaching methodologies be modified to promote limited proficiency, allow for a greater number of errors, and avoid even broaching the unreachable goal of native fluency. Furthermore, if a critical period for L2 learning does exist, then schools should obviously introduce foreign languages earlier, and all states should introduce policies to accelerate the exposure to English of immigrant children, as California has done. Clearly, knowing the facts about the critical period for SLA is relevant to policy and to practice in education. The purpose of this article is to analyze some common misconceptions about L2 learning by examining the relevant literature; it does not present a comprehensive review of critical period research.' We conclude from this analysis that older learners have the potential to learn L2s to a very high level and that introducing foreign languages to very young learners cannot be justified on grounds of biological readiness to learn languages. Rather than focusing on the low probability that adults will acquire fluency in L2s, we argue, it is more productive to examine the factors that typically lead to nativelike proficiency in L2s for any learner. Such an approach can also inform sensible decisions about the allocation of resources for foreign language or L2 teaching. The idea of a critical period was first introduced by Penfield and Roberts (1959), who argued that language acquisition is most efficient before age 9, when "the human brain becomes . . . stiff and rigid" (p. 236). Later Lenneberg (1967) claimed that during this period of heightened plasticity, the human brain becomes lateralized. He argued that puberty represents a biological change associated with the firm localization of language-processing abilities in the left hemisphere. He also claimed that postpubertal language acquisition was far more difficult and far less successful than acquisition occurring during the prepubertal period of rapid neurological development. Krashen (1973), among others, challenged Lenneberg's characterization by showing that brain lateralization may be completed by the age of 5. Lamendella (1977) argued that Lenneberg's conclusion regarding the critical period was overstated and introduced the term sensitive period to emphasize that language acquisition might be more efficient during early childhood but was not impossible at later ages. Today, many researchers in the field use the two terms interchangeably, as we do throughout this article.'

Attempts at a more or less comprehensive overview of the literature include, for example, McLaughlin (1984, 1985), Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991), Harley and Wang (1997), and Birdsong (1999). When citing other people's work, however, we preserve the term chosen by the original authors. 10 TESOL QUARTERLY


Case studies of several individuals who began to acquire an L1 late in life, and who were generally not very successful, are available. Most concern wolf children, children reared in isolation without any linguistic input (e.g., Genie in Curtiss, 1977) or congenitally deaf children whose hearing was improved with the help of hearing aids only after puberty (e.g., Chelsea in Curtiss, 1989). Such cases, though rare, demonstrate the effortfulness and poor outcomes associated with language learning in later childhood or adolescence as compared with its normal course in early childhood. Furthermore, most people can think of dozens of acquaintances who have attempted to learn an L2 after childhood, found it a challenging and frustrating task, and achieved only rather low proficiency. These two phenomena seem on first view to be quite similar and to converge to support the credibility of a critical period for language learning. It is thus not surprising that the notion of a critical period for L2 learning is widely taken for granted. We argue, though, that the cases of children deprived of an L1 and those of L2 learners who encounter obstacles to high-level achievement are entirely different and that the critical period that limits the learning of the first group is irrelevant to explaining the shortcomings of the second. Neither researchers nor others can ignore the overwhelming evidence that adult L2 learners, on average, achieve lower levels of proficiency than younger L2 learners do. However, this evidence is not sufficient to conclude that a critical period for SLA exists; a careful reexamination of the arguments offered in support of the critical period hypothesis suggests that each of them is subject to one of three fallacies: misinterpretation, misattribution, and misemphasis. The person in the street will offer as support for the existence of the critical period the observation that children "pick languages up so quickly." This claim, not accepted by researchers who have actually carried out age comparisons, represents a straightforward misinterpretation of the facts. Other researchers, especially those in the field of neurobiology, report differences in the brain organization of early and late L2 learners and then misattribute presumed language proficiency differences to these brain organizations, often without any direct measures of proficiency. Finally, another set of studies documents that some adults have poor L2 outcomes and then imply that no adults are capable of achieving nativelike proficiency, ignoring the existence of proficient adult learners. We argue that this body of work suffers from the fallacy of misemphasis. In this article we review studies on the critical period in SLA to analyze these misconceptions and to present an alternative view.


MISINTERPRETATIONMany people have misinterpreted the ultimate attainment of children in an L2 as proof that they learn quickly and easily. It is not uncommon for a teacher t